Squats for riders
Squatting is one of the most common movements you see when looking in a gym or on social media. Squats fill up our time feeds & it looks so simple but learning to squat effectively & proficiently is a skill that takes time to develop.
As a trainer, when it comes down to training & helping people to learn the fundamental movement patterns such as a squat my no. 1 focus is form. I am like the form police in the gym & I don’t care if people think it’s boring because it’s not! It is absolutely essential to move well & safely & for you to be able to progress.
A poor squat pattern & technique will get you so far but you will reach a point when you can no longer progress through the continuum to more advanced variations or you can’t add more load to the bar & the worst-case scenario you end up injuring yourself due to poor technique & form. This is my no. 1 scenario to keep all of my clients away from!
Our role as trainers is;
No 1; Do no harm
So teaching someone to squat safely is absolutely paramount in my opinion as a coach. So a squat what is it?
Squats are one of your fundamental movement patterns within your training programme along with movements such as hinges, upper body pushing, core work, carries etc. They are a knee dominant exercise mainly targeting the lower body muscles. A squat is a compound movement which means you are working multiple muscle groups at the same time & using triple extension; extension of the ankle, knee & hip all at the same time. Triple extension is important to train for riders as in the saddle you are constantly using triple extension & working multiple muscle groups at one time.
Predominantly the squat hits your quadriceps muscles (thighs) & your glute muscles (butt!) but it also works your hamstrings, calves, adductors, core muscles & depending on the variation you use such as a back squat is working your back muscles too. So it is a great bang for your buck lift.
Learning to squat safely is absolutely key but it can take time. For me personally, I find the hinge movement of a deadlift far easier to master than the squat so that why it is important to learn the movements properly at the start of your fitness journey & this is why working with a coach is a good idea, working on cues to help you build on the areas you struggle with to improve technique. The same as you'd work on your sitting trot with your dressage trainer.
For riders, as we touched on the squat is a great compound movement as it mimics your riding position perfectly, particularly your jumping & cross country seat. Having the ability to support your weight through your ankle, knee & hip joints whilst keeping your torso upright & core stable is essential to hold a strong position in the seat-otherwise you’re going to be the person galloping along the top of the hill lying on your horse's neck, not what we want obviously!
So what are we looking for when we squat?
-Flexion of the knees & hips
-Thighs parallel to the floor in the bottom of the squat
-Chest up & out, eyes ahead
-Feet in contact with the floor constantly
-Knees & toes inline
-Torso to floor angle stays constant
-Knees keeping straight
These would be the basics we are looking for when learning our squat pattern & the best place to learn to squat is from a chair. All you are going to do is sit down & stand up. This is the best place to start-yes it is simple, but trust me if you’ve nailed this & can fully support your weight as you sit to stand, keeping heels pushing the floor away throughout & chest up then when you started squatting bodyweight away from the chair you will find it far easier.
Using the chair or what we call a box squat is the best place to start, if you start squatting with no support straight away it is easy to pick up inefficient movement from the off, things like knees caving in, heels lifting away from the floor, all things we want to avoid. Start seated, heels pushing the floor away, push the ground away underneath your feet & exhale to stand. Then inhale & slowly lower your bum back down to the chair pushing your feet into the floor looking ahead as you go.
The next progression would be a TRX squat, the suspension trainer is fantastic as now you are working without the support of the chair but the TRX gives your upper body stability so you can work on your lower body movement whilst not having to fully self support your torso as well. Focus on heels screwing the floor away, keeping knees out & lowering to a 90-degree position. You want to have the ability to lower slowly so you are lowering under control not just dropping into your squat, having the support of the TRX lets you do this.
It is easy to want to try & hit your first back squat straight away but honestly keep it simple to start with & focus on nailing really good concrete form, moving with intent & keeping tension. My pet hate is seeing people squat with zero intention & tension as that gives you nothing from the movement, you’re far better to do a basic squat with spot-on form & 100% intention than load up a bar & do a crap back squat! However tempting it may be don’t push on till you are 1000% confident you’ve nailed the basics.
Foot stability is one of the biggest focuses of a squat & isn’t really discussed enough when we are talking about learning to squat. If we focus on the movement from the floor up-this is important as without the stability underneath us we are not going to be able to squat well, are we? Our connection with the floor is imperative, if you lack foot stability this can lead to knees caving in, hips shifting & it can be a simple cue to correct & get you moving better & more proficiently.
Think of your feet as your bird claws gripping the floor away, big toe, heel & ball of the foot push the earth away. You are spreading the floor away with your feet-find a cue that works for you but you want to get the feeling of pushing your feet into the floor with intent. You will feel it as when you focus on pushing the floor away your glute & leg muscles turn on like magic! So if you’re chilling at the top of your squat with no intention then you haven’t got the best foot stability or contact with the ground. You can focus on foot stability whilst you nail the basics of your squat on the box or TRX & this is why it is a good place to start to learn to master proficient movement in your squat.
Squat without shoes. Yep, that is right no shoes or a flat shoe such as a converse. Most modern-day sports trainers have a huge amount of heel cushioning & a thick sole which makes keeping heel contact with the floor very difficult. Lifting without your shoes on will give you a better connection with the floor & you can actually feel the feedback between your heel & the floor under you, with a thick trainer it is really difficult to feel this & it is easy for your heels to lift. Squatting without shoes will also help to strengthen your feet in the long run & it is much easier to then pick up any mobility issues in the ankle, ankle mobility is another big component of good squatting technique so this is important to. If you’re feeling fancy you can always splash out on a pair of training shoes such as metcons.
Ankle mobility is a whole nother subject when it comes to a good squat but briefly, if you struggle with stiff ankles & getting into a good squat position it can help to elevate your heels to begin with. Raising your heels will help you to get better flexion through your knees & therefore depth of squat so you will find it easier to squat whilst maintaining a more upright torso & this will hit your quad muscle fibres more in the lift. Elevated heels require less ankle dorsiflexion so they are a good tool to use to help you to work on your squat & work around your mobility issues but they should be used as a tool in your box not as a replacement. Plenty of ankle mobility & footwork should be done around elevated heel squats, ankle mobility is key for riders to be able to have a strong lower leg & heel position when riding.
Having a good proficient squat technique will help you to get the most out of every single lift you do & get the most bang for your buck in your lifts. Good form & movement is the key for long term being able to progress, add load to the bar & keep injury free! This is the most important thing. The squat can look so simple when you see a picture of someone doing a squat or a video on your IG feed but in reality, it is a very complex movement requiring a high level of skill & practice. I’ve been lifting for about 3 years now & I still struggle with my squat so it takes time & that is ok!
Start simple & nail the form. Your squat is one of the best movement patterns & most functional lifts to translate back into your riding to help strengthen your lower body & core so all riders should be working on their squats. If you know you struggle then start from the floor up, address your ankle mobility & foot stability first & from there start to work on your technique upwards. I hope this helps you to understand how to squat well & why it is so important to nail good movement.
If you have any questions on learning to squat well then please fire away! Always happy to help.